Entering the Facebook ecosystem at age 6

Dec 6, 2017

This week, Facebook unveiled Messenger Kids, modeled after its messaging app. It allows parents to monitor exactly who their children are communicating with on the app. It's aimed at kids ages 6 to 12 (under federal law, kids under 13 aren't allowed to have Facebook accounts.) And it keeps everything inside the Facebook ecosystem — the new app would require parents to be Facebook friends if their kids want to chat. 

The announcement comes with some public apprehension, especially as the company tries to regain trust when it comes to data collection and advertising. Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood talked with Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America, about what this means for kids' presence and privacy online. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Molly Wood: Is this the right time for a company to introduce a product for children, given the sentiment toward Facebook and Google right now? What's the trust factor here?

Amanda Lenhart: A good amount of trust is required. You know, Facebook is acknowledging what we know through data and anecdote, which is that kids are already using these platforms. And so on one level, they're giving kids a space and giving parents a space in a way that they can do the things they're already doing in a way that makes parents feel a little bit safer. On the other hand, is this also a bit of a grab for eyes?

Wood: It is, right? I mean, this is, to some extent, Facebook saying, please don't go to Snap or musical.ly or any of the other platforms that kids might be exploring right now.

Lenhart: It is. But on the other hand, this is something where kids are fickle, right? Adolescents regularly move from platform to platform, following their own network of friends and interests. So you can set yourself up to have a whole cohort of kids who are comfortable on your platform, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll retain them into adolescence.

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Wood: What is the data-sharing potential in terms of gathering data for the communications of the children?

Lenhart: Well, Facebook says in its communication about this product that they aren't going to necessarily at least serve ads to children and use the information that they have about what you do on the platform to target you. But as I understand it, some of the fine print suggests that they will collect information to make the app and the experience better and all the other things that Facebook does do with the data it collects. And so there is a possibility of creating profiles about children and the things that they do and the things that excite them and engage them.

Wood: And we know Facebook has a tendency to sort of launch first and monetize later. Does the announcement literature leave open that possibility?

Lenhart: That's a tough one. I think it's about protecting kids and their personal information and how you share it and being able to target ads. It's not clear to me that that's something they'd be able to do easily or without a lot of public push back.

Wood: Do you think it's inevitable for kids to be on social media? Do you think we just cannot avoid that reality?

Lenhart: It's a tough question. There certainly are children who don't get to go on social media, whose parents prevent them from using it. But I think so much of life, particularly for adolescents, is now mediated through these platforms. This is where you meet your friends. This is where you find out what's happening. This is where you learn about, in some ways, all the things that are most important to you as a teenager — things about your friends. And so I think not being on these platforms pulls you away from a really important part of our social world. And I think it can be really hard for kids to avoid that.

Wood: Amanda, do you have kids? Would you use this?

Lenhart: It's an interesting question. My 6-year-old nephew just texted me via his mom today to send a message to my 5-year-old, so I actually thought about it this morning, looking at his message and thinking about, well, would these two enjoy having a way to communicate with each other that was mediated and kind of secured by parents? And for a 5- and a 6-year-old, yeah. Maybe this might be the thing to do.